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The Need to Measure Impact

March 16, 2014

Understanding the impact of communication programs is one of the most critical challenges facing the corporate communication function at the world’s leading companies.

Understanding the impact of communication however is more than simply determining if messages are delivered or the company is mentioned in the media. Understanding the full impact of communication also has to include determining if intended messages were received by the target audience and if the messages are effective in achieving the behavioral goals that the communication program is intending to achieve.

The key to understanding the impact of communication is being able to measure its impact across the entire communication spectrum from the origination of the message through the receipt of the message using standard measures of communication performance that determine the “return on expectations” of a company’s communication efforts.

A “return on expectations” of communication is the ability of a communication program or message to achieve specific goals that positively impact behavior. “Expectations” are the conditions that are necessary for achieving an intended behavioral impact with a target audience. These expectations include:

  • Are the intended messages actually being delivered to the target audience?
  • Do these messages create a foundation that impacts behavior with this audience and meets business objectives?

Delivery of Intended Messages
One of the distinguishing aspects of corporate communication is its reliance on the placement of messages through “earned media”. Unlike advertising or other forms of paid communication, earned media is the result of proactive interpersonal interactions between communicators and reporters. Unlike paid media, the delivery of intended messages through earned media is not guaranteed. It is the responsibility of the communicator to make every effort to prioritize messages and to communicate the importance of these messages to the intermediary who will be reporting these messages as part of a story they are preparing.

Consequently, the measures that determine the delivery of intended messages need to focus on three fundamental elements:

  • Are intended messages present in earned media?
  • Are negative, misleading or erroneous messages present in this media?
  • Are intended messages absent or omitted where they ideally should have appeared?

These measures are the “cost of entry” for communication if they are to have impact and to achieve communication goals as well as meet business objectives. If a message is not delivered, it cannot by definition have any impact. Just as important, minimizing the presence of negative, misleading or erroneous messages is equally important in assuring the intended impact of a communication program.

These measures however are more than merely diagnostic or evaluative of the delivery of intended messages. These measures are also prescriptive in that they provide clarity to corporate communicators in which messages need to be emphasized as part of their media relations efforts.

Impact of Intended Messages
Delivery of intended messages however does not mean that a communication program has achieved its goals or met its business objectives. In order to affect behaviors that support business objectives, message recipients need to receive intended messages as well as pass through several distinct cognitive phases that are the essential foundation for a behavioral impact to take place – each of which is measurable in determining how much progress is made toward achieving these goals.

These measures start with awareness -- preferably top-of-mind -- of the company, product, service or issue that is at the core of the communication. While awareness is the foundation for creating impact with intended messages, two other measures are equally important:

  • Is the target audience knowledgeable about the topic or issue and are they familiar with all the relevant facts?
  • Are the messages relevant, meaningful and motivating to this audience?

It is only at this point that behavioral impacts occur. A consumer will not buy a product, a shareholder will not invest in a company, a voter will not vote for a candidate unless they are aware of product, company or person running for office, they have knowledge about the product, company or person and they have an emotional or rational connection with messages delivered.

Through the use of these standard measures, it then becomes possible to diagnose the performance and efficacy of a communication program at each critical juncture as well as take any necessary corrective actions that assure communication programs meet their stated goals.

By putting these measures as the core a communication program, the overall efficacy and efficiency of the program increases significantly and allows the full power of earned media to be achieved.

For a detailed discussion of how these measures can be applied, please refer to “A Professional and Practitioner’s Guide to Public Relations Research, Measurement, and Evaluation, 2nd Edition” by David Michaelson and Don W. Stacks. (Business Expert Press, 2014).